Telling Eugene’s Story

Eugene led me down the stone steps past their kayaks and into the crawl space under their home on Flathead Lake. The cool cave carved out of the earth holds boxes of books and a collection of water air-up toys and several rat traps scattered along the floor. The traps were only mildly successful, as I’d later discover shelves loaded with leather-bound editions of The Message and rows of new hardbacks (like Eat this Book) nibbled through, these Montana rats literally taking Eugene’s advice. Stooping through the low entrance, Eugene flipped the switch and the bare 100 watt bulb flickered and sizzled. Eugene pointed to twin black metal cabinets stuffed full of letters, manuscripts, sermons, calendars, clippings from high school, college and decades at Christ Our King Presbyterian. It feels conservative to say that somewhere close to a bajillion people, every sort of person you can imagine, wrote Eugene letters. And Eugene responded to as many as he possibly could, stapling the original and his reply together and sliding them into a manilla folder. There’s a lifetime of love and craft and criticism and hope and struggle stored in that dank grotto.

I’ve spent hours in that space, rummaging through so much texture and so many stories. Over numerous trips, I’ve checked bag after bag at the airport, praying to God that these treasures wouldn’t be accidentally tossed on the wrong conveyer belt and land in some lost baggage claim office in Lithuania. I’ve even destroyed two of the Peterson’s bags trying to haul too much material home to Virginia (sorry, Jan). Whenever I’d come back up to the house, Eugene would ask, “Well, Winn, did you find anything worthwhile?” I’d smile big. Boy, did I. He always asks questions like this with genuine bewilderment. “I don’t know why anyone would be interested in any of this,” he’s said to me multiple times. “Everything has just been a gift.”

Eugene Peterson has had an immense impact on my life, and I’ve been privileged, as have so many others (nearly a bajillion), to correspond with him in letters, to spend time with him on several occasions. But when I said what I assumed would be a final goodbye to him and Jan in their living room in October 2016, I had no idea that by February I would be given the joy and responsibility of being Eugene’s biographer. For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been up to my kneecaps in research: diaries and letters and old slide reels, chatting with Eric and Leif and Karen, with the kaleidoscope of people they call friends. And now I’m turning to the actual task of writing, trying to narrate Eugene’s story, the many good years he and Jan have spent doing what the Petersons do: trying to pay attention to the holiness and the wonder of this life they’ve been given.

It seems right for me to let you know that this is the writing work I’ve been up to, and will be up to for a good while longer. This story deserves every bit of literary gumption I can muster — and then some. I hope to do Eugene justice.

The Tree

About 18 months ago, we had to bring down a 100 year old Ash in our front yard, a truly sad weekend. But after the pros brought it low, we spent days splitting and stacking and hauling. Next, my friend Tom, the finest carpenter I know, loaded a couple large pieces of the Ash into his truck and carried them to his shop (an astounding place, by the way). A couple weeks later, Tom dropped off this beautiful bench. I’m finally getting to the staining, and we’re two coats down, looking like honey.
 
I’m thankful I had the chance to swing an axe in a crisp December with my sons, thankful for this big beautiful tree that has watched over this land for a century, thankful for the rest and conversation this tree will make possible for generations more.

Bare Hands in the Dirt

Kyle Elefson

This past weekend, Miska and I spent all day Saturday and a good bit of Sunday knee-deep in Crabgrass, Nutsedge, Chickweed and Creeping Charlie, ripping fistfuls from one of our front garden beds. This was our third venture into the jungle since Spring, with the weeds returning each time, as if they had something to prove. When we returned from vacation, it looked like we needed a tractor and bailer. It was demoralizing.

Early in the season, I bought a nifty pair of working gloves: HydraHydes, quick drying leather that slips like velvet over my rugged, yardman hands (Forgive me, I’m feeling self-conscious. Recently, after making a quip about being a working man, Miska patted my knuckles and chuckled. “Honey,” she said, “you have a writer’s hands.”). Anyways, I went to work with my fancy working-man gloves, piling load after load into the wheelbarrow.

After an hour, I pulled the sweaty gloves from my steaming body and began yanking weeds with bare hands. My fingers dug into damp clay. My hands turned a shade of burnt orange. Cool dirt brushed my skin. Mud jammed under my fingernails, as if I’d scraped bars of chocolate. I was in the dirt, no longer separated by buckskin. The sun sizzled, and I guzzled quarts of water. Yet, it was refreshing, healing, to be in the dirt with no artificial barrier, skin to soil.

It’s tempting to avoid digging into our life, maintaining protection from the real stuff, from the mess, from the mundane. Life isn’t primarily found in grand gestures or wild epiphanies or those rare, remarkable ecstasies (though I’m thankful for each and hope for more). Real life happens as we punch the clock for another day, as we text a friend to say we miss them, as we shut off the work and stream Key & Peele clips with our kids, as we admit to our spouse that we’re lonely. We truly live our life with bare hands in the dirt.

The Potency of Gratitude

Johnson Wang

Gratitude is a potent, generative dynamism. It breaks through granite hearts, melts brittle souls. It undoes grievances that have ravaged and consumed us, like kudzu devouring a forest. Gratitude gives us new eyes and opens up previously unimagined possibilities. Gratitude wonderfully complicates the tired, old stories that, though connected to a certain truth, have taken over, grabbing us by the collar and chaining us to cynicism or despair or rage. I’m not selling snake oil here. I know gratitude doesn’t cure everything wrong in the world, but I’m convinced it is absolutely part of what we must return to if we ever want to regain our humanity.

I’ve thought about why gratitude doesn’t come natural for me. There’s the normal culprits: I’m not slow enough in my soul to really see people or I’m selfish and self-absorbed. A less obvious reason, however, is how expressions of gratitude make me feel vulnerable. I don’t want to come across as a sap or I don’t want to make someone else uncomfortable or maybe I’m afraid that something that feels so tender to me won’t be understood or received as such. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t exactly live in a gentle world. But I want to be a man with the strength and courage to live with gratitude.

So yes, we need to learn to say thank you. A gentle word of gratitude to the server refilling our coffee, to the person who holds the door open at the grocery store, to the postwoman as she pulls past our mailbox. A genuine thanks to the mother who birthed us and the dad who worked a double shift to get us through college and the friend who’s stayed close all these years. Thank you to the person we like and maybe especially to the person we don’t like much at all.

And then, after we’ve begun to flex our gratitude muscles, we go deeper. Look a person in the eye, really look, and say thank you to them for something specific. Don’t look away; hold their gaze (this one’s important). “I’ve seen how you’ve stuck with this soul-killing job to put food on the table, and I want you to know how grateful I am for your tenacity” or “I saw you pull out the trash for Ms. Jenkins last week, and I’m grateful for how you love our neighbors” or “I know that you were disappointed in how that conversation turned out, thank you for just showing up and that you keep showing up” or “I saw the way you held your tongue when that knucklehead started blathering like a know-it-all; thank you for being gentle when you could have cut him at the knees.”

Gratitude is a gift we give into the world, and in time (and often, at first, in subtle ways) it changes things. Even more – and I’ve seen this in myself – gratitude, over time, changes us.

Stubborn Joy

Nathan Dumlao
Recently, we celebrated my dad’s birthday-eve which is a grand occasion not only because today my dad arrives at 75, a biggie, but also because it’s been two decades since I’ve been able to sing him happy birthday in person or watch him puff out candles stuck in a big tub of banana pudding loaded with nilla wafers.
 
So what are you going to do on a Spring evening when your dad’s in your house and celebrating 3/4 of a century of good life? You’re going to ask him what he wants for dinner, of course. And what’s he going to say? Steaks, of course.
 
So I fired up the charcoal and asked Alexa to fire up The Platters. I like these soulful artists very much, but even more, they’re tunes from dad’s high school days in Garland, Texas. And on your birthday, you get the steaks you like and the banana pudding you like and the music you like. So the steaks sizzled to the serenade of “The Great Pretender” and “Enchanted” and “You’ve Got the Magic Touch.”
 
Toward the end of our evening, the playlist shuffled to The Platters’ rendition of “Joy to the World.” I started to tell Alexa to switch the song, so out of place to hear Christmas music in April when the grill’s blazing. But they kept singing to me, repeating that sounding joy, repeating that sounding joy. And I wanted to hear more. I wanted The Platters to belt out this joy for the whole neighborhood. They say joy is subversive. I know this to be true. We must, as the poet Jack Gilbert reminded us, “have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
 
We can live without a lot of things in this world, but I’m not sure we can live, or live in any way that’s actually living, without joy. So be bold and stubborn today: accept your gladness, your joy. And if you can’t find any, watch for it, be open to it. I believe joy will find you.

Sundays

image by Jørgen Håland

Sundays are for worship and napping. And taking a little tour of our herb garden where Miska guides me (again, because I always forget the particulars) through the holy basil, the mullein, the daffodils, the lavender, the oregano. She shakes the poppy plants, and we grin at the sound of rattling seeds, nature’s maracas. She coaxes me to touch the velvety carpet of the roman camomile, a bed fit for a queen.

Juno, our black mouser, flops over at Miska’s feet, insisting Miska scratch him while he purrs, swatting at Miska if she stops before Juno deems appropriate. Miska does as Juno demands; then she reaches her fingers into the rich soil, a gesture of wonder and delight and prayer.

Watching her, I envision the Great Creator, at the beginning of human time – and still now – reaching hands down into the soil of this world and taking great, great joy in all the beauty. Our worship with the gathered community, with the liturgy and the Scriptures and the Eucharist, centers us, and having done its work, it sends us, dispersed into our scattered, holy places. And in a hundred ordinary corners, the worship and the liturgy continues. For us, it carries us into gardens and naps and later into an evening with friends. We must worship, and we must indulge in God’s good earth, and we must rest. This is a feast. These are our liturgies. It is all of a whole: one life, one God, one grand and beautiful day.

Seeing Francis

I was sitting in the Philly airport eating my Smash Burger breakfast sandwich (I know, right?), trying to regroup from a before-the-crack-of-dawn flight. And who walks right up to the Smash Burger line? None other than Francis Collins, director of the National Institute for Health, a renown academic and scientist and Christian and thinker who’s done a heck of a lot to help a number of us recapture a sense of gratitude and hope as we ponder the many splendid wonders of science and remember how, as people of faith, we marvel and are not afraid.
 
I’ve never met Francis, but I’ve seen his photos numerous times and watched a great SMU commencement speech on YouTube (where he to conclude he pulled out his guitar and sang the graduates a folk song; he’s grand). So there he was, by himself, dragging his clicketty-clacketty carry-on around the food court, hunting down breakfast. I thought for only a moment, but I had an hour and he didn’t look like he was in a hurry. “Why not?” I thought, “Why not breakfast with Francis? It could happen.”
 
So of course I walked up to him, and how else do you start this introduction? “Are you Francis Collins?” I asked, and I may have been a tad exuberant.
 
He looked at me blankly. “What?” I went at it again. He wrinkled his brow and stepped back, as if I’d just asked, “Do you know I’m about to blow fire out my nose?”
 
“No, no,” he shook his head, bewildered. “Not me,” he said, waving his hand as if to ward off my tsunami of disappointment.
 
I returned to my table, deflated. He rolled his bag away, to find his bagel, sit down in peace and google: “Francis Collins.”
postscript: Mr. Collins, should you ever happen upon this, I would still dearly love to meet you. Smash Burger’s on me.

This God and No Other

Josh Applegate

If we want to know what God is like, there are good places to look. In Genesis, we discover God is Creator, God is life. From Exodus, we discover God as deliverer, sustainer, the One Who Never Abandons. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God is absolute holiness, the bewildering gift assuring us that divine love is never capricious and divine justice unquenchable. In the prophets, we discover that God moves toward the oppressed. In the wisdom books, we discover God as intimately concerned about human flourishing. Page after page, there are endless revelations, none of which fatigue the cosmic reality of God.

If you want to know what God is like, we might also be wise to explore Creation. The earth is the Lord’s, the Psalmist tells us. We discover much about God by contemplating, by enjoying with wide-eyed wonder and reverence, God’s handiwork. How better to know an artist than to ponder her art? How better to get into the imagination of a novelist than to read his stories? The heavens, with the skies and the mountains and the creatures and the rivers, proclaim to us the wonder of God.

And we could talk about friendship and love and desire and beauty. There are a million ways to discover God in this God-drenched world.

However, if we truly want to know what God is like, we go first to God’s fullest revelation: Jesus. When God wanted to provide us God’s decisive self-expression, God gave us Jesus. And to know what Jesus is like (what God is like), we must reckon with Jesus’ cataclysmic moment. We must reckon with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

God is none other than the God who gladly, though enduring great agony and grief, surrenders his own life to rescue another. God is the one who takes upon himself all the violence the powers of this world, both religious and political, can dish up. God is the one committed to healing the evil of the one driving the nails as well as the evil of the one enraged to vengeance. God is the one who refuses to answer his accusers, allowing the Cross – and then the Resurrection – to speak the final word. God is the one who refused to call the angel-warriors, surely poised with flaming sabers, to his defense. God is the one who spoke words of tenderness, even while gasping for breath, to the precious few huddled around his naked, heaving body. God is the one who cried out words of crushing sorrow and abandonment precisely because he refused to abandon his friends or his enemies. God is one who loves to the bitter end.

God is the one who died not only for his few beleaguered friends but for the very ones who hung him on this crucible of death. God is the one who in his broken body extinguished every pretense of human righteousness, human justice, every human dream for self-reclamation. When we encounter perfect love, we murder it; and God is the one who knows this acutely. God is the one who came to finally, irrevocably and at great cost, do something about the delusions we don’t even know we have. God is the one who came to do the final task of love, to die. God, in Jesus, is the one who, in some great mystery we cannot fathom (and God help us when we think we’ve got it) showed up, took our abuse and our ridicule, and in that one astounding reversal “died for our sins” – that haunting phrase.

This is the God we worship, and no other. The God who hangs on a cross of brutal death. The God who descends into the fullness of our agony and annihilation. The God who would rather die than let us die. The God who went into the bowels of hell and came out the Victor. The God who went into death, for us, and now proclaims life into every dead and ruined person and place. Whatever vision we have of God, it must begin here.

Dear John ~ 12 February 2018

Dear John, 

It’s been a while since I’ve written. You’ve been to Italy and back. I haven’t gone globetrotting since my last letter, but we did get to Memphis during Christmas. That’s a lot like Italy, right? I appreciated the pictures you shared and the way the place moved you. My folks took my sister and me on a trip to Israel when I was in high school. They maneuvered the trip so that we had two or three days in Rome on the way back. I remember five things: the drivers were batshit crazy; my parents bought me what I know was a pricy rugby shirt from what seemed to a 15-year-old Texas boy to be a very chic Benetton shop; St. Peter’s Basilica is like entering an alternative world (which, I understand now, is kind of the point); their pizza had peas on it. The fifth thing was my dad at his finest. We happened to be in Rome on Thanksgiving Day, after a week and a half of foreign food, and dad dreamed up a wild adventure including a mad hatter taxi ride (see comment about the drivers) across the city to this three-story McDonalds where we ate Big Macs, chicken nuggets and fries as we remembered the Pilgrims and their meal with the Wampanoag tribe. 

Anyway, I’d like to go back. I’d pass on the Big Macs, but I’d stand as long as they’d let me there in the center of St. Peter’s and bask in the brilliance, the mystery. Of course, I’d have Miska with me which means we’d get out of the big city as soon as possible and head to the countryside, walking the hills and the vineyards and the little villages where we’d enjoy breads and cheeses and olives and vino. 

I just finished Shaffer and Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society; I loved it. I found myself saying, “This may be the best epistolary novel I’ve ever read,” which feels magnanimous of me since I wrote one. After I made this magnanimous remark to myself, however, I realized I’d never actually read an epistolary novel other than the one I’ve written. That feels like a mistake, perhaps something I should have mentioned to my editor. 

Anyway, the English poet and essayist Charles Lamb has an intriguing prominence in the story, and there’s this point where we hear about a quarrel between Wordsworth and Lamb, who were friends. Wordsworth scolded Lamb for his failure to adore nature. Lamb, refusing to give an inch, answered with a defense of how enraptured he was with the common physical elements of his life. “The rooms where I was born,” Lamb wrote, “the furniture which has been before my eyes all of my life, a book case which has followed me about like a faithful dog wherever I have moved–old chairs, old streets, squares where I have sunned myself, my old school–have I not enough, without your Mountains?”

Now, you know me enough to know that I’m with Wordsworth on the necessity of mountains, but there’s something about Lamb and his fascination and delight with these physical pieces and places right in front of him, the most common and plain portions of our life, that moves me. There really is wonder everywhere.

So we’ll be marked with ashes on Wednesday, and we’ll enter Lent’s bright sadness. Miska wrote something beautiful today, and she included in it lines from St. Teresa of Avila that I’d never heard before:

God is always there, if you feel wounded. He kneels
over this earth like
a divine medic,
and His love thaws
the holy in
us.

I think this is what I’m hopeful for in these Lenten days, for the divine medic to come and tend to my heart, for Divine love to thaw the holy in me.

Your Friend,
Winn

All Will Rise and Enter Free

Two weeks ago, I stood under room #306 at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King breathed his last. I heard the sound of his booming, prophetic voice, that poetic cadence that won’t let you loose. His voice holds me still. This past summer, as our city was engulfed in evil, it was Dr. King’s words, from his next to last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  that challenged me, sustained me, emboldened me. He spoke into our time, into my uncertainties.

Such conviction – the man knew his core, and he would not move. Not when the economic and political arsenal of white America turned against him. Not when some of his own friends and supporters turned against him.

Of course, Dr. King stands in a long line of women and men, courageous souls, who serve as our conscience, who love boldly, who refuse the ways we degrade ourselves and one another with our greed and selfishness and violence. These prophets of creative love do not leave destruction in their path. They dismantle evil, but their hands recreate rather than destroy. They envision what we will be, even as they call out what must be undone. They believe that goodness is not for the few but the many. They believe that wherever we must go, we must all arrive there together. They know that all will one day rise and enter free.

Rise up, my soul and let us go
Up to the gospel feast;
Gird on the garment white as snow
To join and be a guest.

Dost thou not hear the trumpet call
For thee, my soul, for thee?
Not only thee, my soul, but all,
May rise and enter free.

This poem was penned by George Mason Horton, enslaved poet and author of the first published book by a black man in the South, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829.

 

+photography is by the iconic Gordon Parks